New computer testing boosts technology in Sacramento area schools

California schools are racing to add computers and improve Internet access in preparation for the debut next school year of state computerized assessments for students.

Sacramento-area school districts have spent millions of dollars in the past two years upgrading their broadband connections and buying computers and other technology so thousands of students can simultaneously take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, which will replace the former pencil-and-paper STAR test.

The computerized tests will measure how well students grasp the new Common Core standards, a set of national guidelines that California and 44 other states have embraced as the next big shift in teaching. Common Core stresses critical thinking, problem solving and the use of technology.

The arrival of these standards – and the accompanying tests – have put the purchase of computers at the top of every district’s priority list. The Legislature boosted the effort by making $1.25 billion available this school year for computers, bandwidth and training. School districts also passed bonds, dipped into their general funds and used federal technology dollars.

The sudden arrival of so much new technology has many educators beaming. They say the new computers are much more than a testing tool, but could transform the educational experience in California schools.

“This is the 21st century; we need computers for instruction,” said Anne Zeman, executive director of elementary services at Twin Rivers Unified. Zeman said assignments like book reports could now more easily include multimedia aspects such as video and photographs.

Other education experts agree. Technology could allow students to “blow things up in simulated experiments” or “play with outcomes of different kinds of scenarios,” said Karin Forssell, director of learning, design and technology at Stanford University. “You also can allow students to respond to things anonymously so they can be heard. The list really goes on and on.”

Forssell warned, however, that access to computers alone won’t elevate learning. “It’s really important to accompany that spending with teacher and professional development,” she said. “If you have that, it can do some amazing things.”

A recent survey by the Sacramento County Office of Education found that 86 percent of the districts in the county say they’ll be ready to test students with computers at all their schools in 2014-15, said David Gordon, county schools chief. Overall, 75 percent of the state’s school districts say all of their schools will be ready for the computerized exam.

That doesn’t mean all students will have a computer of their own, however.

Terry Kritsepis, assistant superintendent of information education technology at Sacramento City Unified School District, said the district and most others around the state will roll computer-filled carts, known as COWs, or computers on wheels, from class to class. The COWs also will be used for instruction throughout the year.

After buying 6,372 computers, Sacramento City Unified now has enough to test all its students in a 10-day window, Kritsepis said.

School Internet access varies across the county. San Juan Unified has installed a wireless access point in every classroom and continues to install access points to increase capacity. Folsom Cordova Unified has Internet access at each school site but is still working on installing wireless at five of its schools. Sacramento City Unified has had high-speed Internet access at all of its schools for at least the last three or four years, but the system hardware needed updates, which are ongoing.

“In some cases they were held together with tape and bubble gum,” said Gabe Ross, district spokesman at Sacramento City Unified. “There weren’t enough switches or wireless routers for all the campuses, and in some cases, wiring wasn’t always inside the walls.”

Twin Rivers Unified enlisted 3,000 of its students Thursday to test its broadband capacity and to give students a chance to try out the new exams. Hagginwood Elementary fourth-grader Juliesha Thompson clicked on lawn chairs on the left of her computer screen and dropped them one by one onto the yard displayed on the right. Her goal: move 27 chairs onto the grass.

The district’s technology staff, meanwhile, monitored the district’s broadband to see how it was holding up under the pressure of so much traffic.

The test of the system Thursday showed the district is ready to handle thousands of students taking the computerized test at once. Technicians at each school and a wall of computer monitors at district headquarters showed that all the schools’ Internet connections were working.

“I feel pretty good about where we are,” Zeman, said, as she watched a group of students testing the system.

Most of the students at Hagginwood gave the new test a thumbs up, saying they preferred taking exams on computers over using paper and pencil. “It’s funner,” Thompson said. “You don’t have to write.”

Fifth-grade teacher Kiran Bahwiwal watched her students take the test in another Hagginwood classroom. Students are excited about the computerized tests, she said. “It’s a big incentive. They like the computer.”

Still, some parents are concerned that some children, especially younger ones not as familiar with technology, may be at a disadvantage in the testing. Despite the high number of schools statewide that say they will be ready for the test, only 60 percent are teaching keyboarding skills to students this year.

“This is an area we are working on,” Ross said, of teaching keyboarding skills. “It’s not something we will have before field testing.”

A state-mandated field test of the system begins next month. Between March and June, tens of thousands of local students in grades 3-8 and 9-11 will go online to take exams that include multiple-choice and essay questions. Students will need to drag and drop answers, and work with graphs and charts.

“The field test of the new assessment system will help districts find out where they need to tune up their programs to be fully prepared for implementation.” Gordon said.

It also will let the tests designers see which questions are problematic so they can make revisions before the results actually count.

The decision not to calculate student scores on the field test has frustrated some parents, teachers and administrators, especially since STAR testing has been suspended for this year. Phoebe Hearst Elementary School Principal Andrea Egan said she would like to see results at the state level so she can make adjustments before next school year.

But Gordon said offering results would not be wise. “A field test is a tryout of all the test questions,” he said. “Some will work well, some won’t work well and some won’t work at all.” He pointed out that some schools have yet to teach the Common Core Standards in all their classrooms. “It wouldn’t be fair to test students on skills they haven’t been taught,” he said.

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